In 1784 a German magazine asked its readers to answer the question, “What is Enlightenment?” Among those who replied was the philosopher Immanuel Kant.
He wrote, “Have the courage to use your own reason! That is the motto of Enlightenment.”
Generations of columnists have reduced Kant’s remarks to a series of clichés and impressive sounding phrases that do little more than corroborate liberal conventional wisdom.
This use of the Enlightenment crops up in a very particular context – when commentators decide that it is time to defend “rational” (usually Western) modernity from its “irrational” enemies.
Thinkers associated with the 18th century Enlightenment movement such as Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and David Hume are enlisted to give a kind of grandeur to this theme.
It is in the politics of Western military aggression that this model of Enlightenment has had the most pernicious influence.
The idea that the values of the Enlightenment such as secularism and modernity were under attack gained ground in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
By October 2001 conservative commentators in the US were calling for “enlightened” intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile many liberals accepted that only the US army could be relied on to bring the values of tolerance and personal freedom – the West’s enlightened inheritance – to the poor benighted countries of the Middle East.
The propaganda campaign for the invasion of Iraq included many, sometimes contradictory, themes. The appeal to the ideas of the conventional model of Enlightenment played an important part in reconciling some opinion to the need for war.
The armies of unreason – in the form of political Islam – were on the march, we were told. We had no choice but to defend ourselves and our values.
The disastrous failure of the US/British invasion shouldn’t blind us to the role that the language of Enlightenment values played in securing support from some sections of the public.
And Kant’s call to intellectual autonomy – “use your own reason” – fits neatly into the conventional enlightened rhetoric – as long as you don’t read further than the first page.
It is much more difficult to use Kant to bolster this cartoon version of the Enlightenment if you read the rest of what is quite a short essay.
Unlike many of the people who quote him, Kant didn’t think it was easy to reconcile making adult use of our reason with our duties and obligations as social creatures.
In fact, Kant was acutely aware of the threat that such a decision poses to the established order.
Enlightenment doesn’t mean resisting external “threats to reason”, it means recognising that in our everyday lives we operate within certain social constraints – and that certain topics are off the agenda.
Kant argues that it is only by consciously distancing ourselves from such social relationships that we can hope to achieve a genuinely Enlightened understanding of the world.
This, it seems to me, is a much more interesting account of what it would mean to be Enlightened than the conventional wisdom.
Kant directly challenges one of the dogmas of our age by insisting that we are necessarily compromised by the institutional and personal relationships within which we make our lives.
Our love of truth does not sit comfortably with our need for employment, with our sociability, or with the full expression of our humanity.
I am aware that this will sound strange to many on the left – and certainly Kant’s idea of Enlightenment is very different from the world of revolutionary commitment. But I think Kant has a powerful point here.
It only takes a moment to recognise that certain questions don’t get asked, certain stories don’t get commissioned, certain subjects are best left unexamined.
For example, those who militantly insist on always telling the truth in the workplace are unlikely to get very far in building a career.
The greatest threat to the Enlightenment thus resides in our anxious insistence that we can easily reconcile our love of truth with the rest of the needs and fears that make us human.
And recognition of our own ambiguous attitude to the truth marks the beginning of true Enlightenment.
Dan Hind is author of The Threat To Reason: How The Enlightenment Was Hijacked And How We Can Reclaim It (Verso, £15). It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop – phone 020 7637 1848.
For more details go to » thethreattoreason.blogspot.com